Part 63: Riley Shepard's Cookbook, and How I Was Reunited with His Encyclopedia of Folk Music
Today is Sunday, January 31, 2021. 30 million of 50 million vaccines have been distributed. There are three strains of the new virus, South African, British, and Brazilian variants. Last Sunday (which seems like a hundred years ago) my husband, David, got his vaccine. Four days prior, he registered online and determined his eligibility, (he's 67) then got on a waiting list, got accepted, and after that, he went back online to find the location for his vaccine.
The vaccine site was run by Virginia Mason, aided by Amazon (they called it the "Amazon Super Vac Site) handling physical logistics. When he arrived for his appointment, the line looked amazingly long. However, it moved quickly, and with a 9:00 AM appointment, he finally received his shot by 9:20 AM, and out by 9:35. He developed a slight headache, and a sore arm. He has a huge, dark purple bruise on his injection site, but no pain in the bruised area. He knows he got lucky, and that others could not get an appointment, some of our friends cannot get a vaccine, even though they are over 65 years old.
How do the elderly, who may not be "computer people" navigate all these sites? The online portion of the task took David over an hour. I have dozens of stories from clients about how they got their vaccine. At least two people I know found out that one of the hospitals had "left over" vaccines, and one person I know jetted out of her house at 11:00 PM to get her shot after getting a call from a doctor friend. The UW hospital had a freezer malfunction, which would've destroyed an allotment, so they put the word out.
Back to Riley. Today I'm posting one of the cakes he used to bake. It's in a cookbook Riley wrote, (my sister and I both have copies) and this particular cookbook was Riley's gift to his best friend, Paul Wyatt in 1989. Several years ago, I finally met Paul's widow, Pat, and daughter, Elizabeth.
I finally met them through mutual friends. I'd known Tim Baker, an artist, since I was a teenager living in Porterville, California. In 1985, Tim ended up in the theater department at an all women's college in Missouri called Stephens College. He and Elizabeth got to talking one day about how her father, Paul, was in the music business. Tim randomly mentioned my father's name. "Oh," she said, "Riley was my father's best friend." Tim called me, saying he'd met someone whose father knew my father. I filed that connection away, thinking it was an interesting, random bit of information, and hoping to connect with Elizabeth one day.
Since we moved so often, back then I didn't even know my father had a "best friend." If I had to guess, I would've guessed Joe Tanzman or Bud Sherman, only because we spent so much time with them, especially Joe.
27 years later, and miles away in a small town in Oregon, my college friend Mark contacted me with a wild story. Mark's daughter was involved in a show at her high school theater department. One night, he was chatting with the drama teacher and director, and it turned out that her father was in the music business. I don't know how Riley came up in conversation, but the connection was made, her father was Paul Wyatt. The director of his daughter's high school show was Elizabeth. This was around 2012.
Mark contacted me. "Stacya, I was talking to this woman...her father knew your father. They were best friends. His name was Paul Wyatt, did you know him?"
What are the chances that two of my friends would end up befriending the same woman, (in different states, miles apart) and that my father's name came up somehow in their conversations?
Anyway, Paul had died by the time I finally made the connection with his daughter, but his wife, Pat, had my father's Encyclopedia of Folk Music. Paul believed in my father's project so much, he was an early investor. He gave Riley thousands of dollars. He also showed up with bags of groceries when Riley was broke. Pat told me that Paul believed Riley was a genius, and would've "given him the shirt off his own back." She saved everything my father ever sent to Paul, including this cookbook he wrote, "Riley's Recipes for Working Cooks." Pat gave me everything, the letters, the encyclopedia, and the cookbook when I came to Oregon to see her.
I'm including Riley's grapefruit cake recipe, because he made this one often, and we loved it.
When Dad had a job cooking in diners, we had plenty of food in the house. A few times he took me to a restaurant supplier in Oxnard to shop for the restaurant, but I wonder now if he charged the diner for stuff he brought home. I'm not sure, but I do wonder. I do know that whenever Riley had a job cooking, the kitchen at home was stocked. He'd bake pies, cakes, cinnamon rolls, make stews, soups, pot roast. He also brought home butter, coffee, pots and pans, utensil, and once a bunch of chairs. My mother said he was stealing from his employers. I still hope he didn't steal... but when I really think about it, it seems that he did.
When he didn't have jobs in diners, we often didn't have food in the house. What they call "food insecurity" these days.
"You can't say I didn't feed you," Dad would often say. He said that, and yet we did run out of food, plenty of times. My older sister remembers those times with no food in the house much better than I do, but I do recall one night my mother had a breakdown, and she began frantically picking dandelion leaves from the front yard to eat. She made a small salad with oil and vinegar.
"You can't say I didn't feed you" was probably his way to cover-up those terrible times. When Riley had money or food, he'd make gigantic portions. A classic food-pusher, he wanted people to keep eating. If you said no, he'd insist. If someone said they were on a diet, he'd double down. The pressure was intense. In a strange twist, both my sister and I have serious food allergies. I was finally diagnosed with Celiac Disease in the late 90s, and avoid sugar, and my sister is also on a strict diet for health reasons. Riley would've hated that.
Perhaps Riley's extreme relationship with food was rooted in his past, when he was placed in solitary confinement ("The Jug" as they called it) as punishment, or when he was homeless. That feast and famine played out in our lives.
I was chatting with my pal Mark Staben (who connected me to Paul Wyatt's wife and daughter) about this aspect of "food pushing". I loved what he wrote so I'm including it here.
Food is life, for many the preparation of food for others is an expression of love. Having enough food is a marker of success, happiness. Sharing is likewise an expression of love, generosity. Cooking is an act of creativity and communal sharing, the preparer wants to please people, to be appreciated, to give something that in a very basic way helps assist in the well-being and happiness of another. Lots more going on, but all connected to very basic, primal, and instinctual human and animal behavior.